Bright Spots in the Bubble: The Case of St. John’s College

But many important and successful things are easy to caricature.  And the fact that a good can be mistaken for the good or can be exaggerated at the expense of other goods is something we have recognized at least since St. Augustine. My point is simply that there is something rare and valuable that transpires in a St. John’s seminar, and fitted together into the overall St. John’s program and extended over the course of four years, it provides a distinctive liberal arts education that lives up to the clever St. John’s motto: Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque (“I make free men out of children by means of books and the scale [i.e., judgement]”).

You can’t set foot on a college campus these days without encountering incessant chatter about “diversity.” It doesn’t take long to realize that by “diversity” most colleges mean “strict intellectual and moral conformity about any contentious issue.”   Most colleges and universities are one-party states, purveying, at enormous cost, a species of ideological indoctrination while their charges enjoy a four-year holiday from the responsibilities of adult life masquerading as a liberal education.  Their parents are happy, or at least reconciled to the expense and the indoctrination, because said college provides their child with the all-important stamp of societal approval in the form of a meal ticket called a “diploma.”  What have they actually learned? What skills have they mastered? What is their character?  Those are questions no one, having just spent  (in many cases) $250,000, wants to ask. St. John’s really does offer something different. It’s just as expensive. And I suspect that a large proportion of its faculty are as reflexively left-wing as the faculty at most other colleges. But their interrogative engagement with a thoughtfully garnered distillation of masterpieces makes St. John’s quite different from almost every other institution.  Is it for everyone? No.  But it is one of our age’s failings — a liability of thoughtless “democratization” — to assume that if something isn’t good for everyone, it is good for no one.

St. John’s needs fewer than  900 students spread between two campuses to thrive. The college will be subject to many of the same financial pressures besetting other institutions affected by what Glenn Reynolds and others have called “the higher education bubble.” In ten years, there will be many fewer institutions than there are now. A financial dégringolade is in the offing — it is in fact upon us — that, in concert with the technological revolution that is moving more and more teaching to the internet, will end in deep and lasting changes to the institution of  higher education.

Nevertheless, one hopes — I certainly hope — that the coming revolution is not a process of universal homogenization.  The dirty little secret about “liberal arts education” in this country is that, at most institutions, the liberal arts are just rhetorical window dressing.  The actual education is partly vocational (that’s the good part), partly a species of indoctrination or frivolous time-wasting. I like to think that there are at least 1000 eager young adults whom fortune has favored with an eagerness and curiosity about the sorts of questions that were traditionally at the heart of a liberal arts education.  I hope that St. John’s will be there to entertain and nurture that spirit of inquiry.  Its vitality is not easily subject to the usual utilitarian metrics, but its preservation, I am convinced, is as central to the future health of our civilization as it is (as it always is) under siege.